When I was preaching in Bielefeld in Summer 2013, I took a trip to Kothen, in the former East Germany, to visit Martin Oljenicki (the German seminarian who spent some time with Old First in 2011) and his family.
Martin took me on a day trip to Wittenburg, where Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the door of the Schlosskirche and began what became known as the Protestant Reformation. Years before, in the early 1980’s, I had visited the German Democratic Republic (East Germany while still under Communist control), and during that tour, I had visited Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle where Luther had to hide for his own safety after he was ex communicated by the Pope, and where he translated the Latin Bible into German. But I hadn’t ever been to Wittenberg.
And already in summer of 2013, the whole town was under construction. It seems the Germans are very excited about and putting great effort into preparing for 2017 — the 500th Anniversary of Luther’s ecclesiastical revolt that founded Protestantism and “changed the world.”
However, I couldn’t help but wonder if the world in 2017 was going to remember? Or have much appreciation for the Protestant Reformation?
Even though the cultural assumptions that the Reformation either engendered or abetted are truly foundational for what we know as our modern, industrialized world, we probably aren’t in much of a position to appreciate them. Without much sense in our contemporary setting for the church and what faith offers, “religious history” is often treated like a deadend that’s been eclipsed by time and secularity. Outside of Germany, there seems to be little interest in how the Reformation contributed to modernism.
As we come around to Halloween again, I remind you that we aren’t one of those Christian communities that’s offended by kids dressing up as witches, ghosts and devils.
But I also remind you that in church we remember the day as more than just All Hallow’s Eve. It is also the day we remember Luther’s religiously motivated act of defiance. Protestantism is by definition the body of beliefs of those who are moved by their faith to protest!
History is of course much more complicated than any one person’s actions, even an historical luminary. Religious critique of Rome and unrest over ecclesial authority had been seething for centuries.
But by Luther’s time such fires were fueled by the infancy of capitalism: increasing wealth, urbanization and education. The literate laity, though still a small minority, were no longer confined to those “in on the church’s game.” There were “outsiders” who were better educated than many priests. So when Luther (a priest and a professor) started making some noise, to his advantage, there were also power brokers outside the church who could lend their support in questioning the church’s ultimate claims. And a willing audience that was empowered to do things differently.
The legacy of the Reformation is all wrapped up in the rise of the modern industrial west. Its religious reconsideration of the cosmos and anthropology became a primary intellectual framework for providing ideas to inform, support and strengthen fast-moving economic, political and social developments.
In this sense, it has much to do with what we know as modern existence. And if we truly believe ours is a God that works in history, then God had some hand in all this.
I’m not revealing any tired, anti-Catholic prejudice, or preferring the Protestant covenant to a Catholic. I’m just asking us to know some history of how our world came to be and to think how the traditions we are part of have played various positive and negative roles.
Anyway, I believe that God often initiates a new community not as a replacement, so much as in order to be able to work through both communities… for related but different purposes, as we might say with the covenant with the Jews and an other one with the Christians. Protestant Christianity did not become the true faith, so much as a different way of understanding the Christian faith.
The Reformation engendered intense and bloody religious rivalries and warfare, and strenghthed the rising of nation states and the violent territorial struggles that often occur between them. The Reformation also led to an almost endless variety of different religious communities — and the theological and social understandings and schisms that constituted them.
But it contributed new understandings of God and of humans and societies. It dovetailed with the rise of Enlightenment rationalism. It began a long march towards the importance of the individual, began a movement towards civil rights and individual liberties, including freedom of conscience and freedom of religion, that have come to be understood as basic human rights in much of the modern world.
I’m preaching this Sunday about how each of us is only given so much time “with the baton” … as if history is an endless relay race. At the beginning of our race, we received it from someone else. And before our race is over, we need to hand it to another runner for yet the next leg in the journey.
It’s in this sense then, that I find myself considering and giving thanks for the witness that Luther and Zwingli and Calvin and other reformers have added to the Christian profession. And how what they contributed worked with other people’s contribution and forces well beyond anyone person. I find myself marveling at how our Protestant tradition has had its role in making the world we have to live in.
But I am also aware that its our turn with the baton. And I’m thinking about what it is that we are contributing. Gifts and graces we might not be aware of. And whose implications will depend on others, perhaps far astream.
But how what we do with out lives, often little everyday decisions about what we are going to do or not do because of what we believe can have far-reaching effects. Perhaps much beyond what we can imagine, believe or ever see…
But I hope to see you in church,